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Lessons Learned

Here's How Your Brain Prevents You From Following Your Intentions

Despite the best intentions, how you feel may have more say over what you do.

Here's How Your Brain Prevents You From Following Your Intentions
[Photo: via Wikimedia Commons]

It isn't some irrational impulse that prevents us from following through on our intentions. It’s logic. Not enough logic? No! The problem is too much logic. Without even realizing it, we make assumptions that are irresistibly logical but altogether wrong.

In order to understand what makes it so hard to follow through, we have to pay less attention to how we logically think things should work and pay more attention to how things really do work.

Don't Blame Yourself For Your Bad Follow-Through...

Perhaps the most troublesome assumption we make is that the human mind is properly designed for turning good intentions into action.

Poor follow-through—failing to do what you realize you could do, have concluded you should do, and promised yourself you will do—isn’t exactly your fault. Cognitively speaking, you’re off the hook.

Forget about your business, your job, or your career for a moment. As a human being, you’re simply not wired to naturally do things you don’t feel like doing, even if you truly intend to do them.

...Blame Your Brain

We humans have an extraordinary ability to use intelligence to figure out what we need to to in order to get the things we want and need. We can rationally decide, for example, to forgo an immediate pleasure or perform an unpleasant task in order to achieve an important benefit later on. That’s great. The only problem is that our intelligent decisions don’t automatically drive our behavior. You can figure out what you should do, intelligently decide to do it, promise yourself you’ll do it, and still not do it.

Ironically enough, the same impressive mental apparatus that’s so beautifully equipped to help us figure out what we could and should do to achieve the success we crave doesn’t automatically make us do it.

The question, then, is come come even our most rationally grounded intentions don't drive our actions. And that’s a huge problem because much of what they tell us to do we just don’t feel like doing.

Suppose you intelligently decide to spend Thursday afternoon tidying up your desk so you can find things more easily, be more productive, and thereby be more successful. It makes sense, so you promise yourself you’ll do it.

But your good intention won’t actually require you to tidy up your desk. It won’t even make you feel like tidying up your desk. In fact, there’s a good chance that you may feel strongly like not tidying up your desk. You may find the task itself distasteful, or you may feel like doing something else instead, like watching a sporting event on television or wandering around aimlessly on the Internet.

When Feelings Rule The Day

Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that what you feel like doing will drive your behavior more than your intention will. In other words, even though your intention is smart, how you feel may have more control over what you do. It makes no difference if what you feel like doing is dumb, shortsighted, and success-opposing rather than success-producing.

Neuroscience expert and author Amy Brann knows all about the paradoxical way the mind treats good intentions.

"Our brains are set up to be very responsive to our internal and external environments," she told us. "Unfortunately this means that we often do not follow through with our intentions and need to utilize additional strategies to do the things that are important to us," she explained.

"To an extent, we are reward-seeking beings, and we are wired for immediate gratification. The trick is to work with, rather than against this."

This article is adapted from The Power to Get Things Done (Whether You Feel Like It or Not) by Steve Levinson, Ph.D. and Chris Cooper by arrangement with Tarcher Perigee, a member of the Penguin Publishing Group, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2015 by Steve Levinson, Ph.D. and Chris Cooper. It is reprinted with permission.

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